The idea of science outreach is important but not new. But let’s be honest. Many scientists, including me, don’t think about outreach until faced with writing the “broader impacts of research” section of a grant or fellowship application. Lack of time and lack of training in communication are major hurdles that limit our engagement in outreach activities.
We talk science every day — in the lab discussing research data with colleagues, in the classroom teaching undergraduate students or in the auditorium giving a scientific seminar. Yet when it comes to communicating with nonscientists, we are ill-prepared.
As graduate students, we fail to explain our research adequately to our parents when they ask about our work. It is frustrating to receive limited support and appreciation from the public for the work we dedicate ourselves to due to our inability to communicate. The problem, however, resides with us, not the public.
We are fortunate to have a course in science communication taught by Tom Baldwin … (He) emphasizes that the key to effective communication is to know your audience — who they are and what matters to them — and then to choose your approach carefully. When communicating with the public, scientists often use too much jargon, which, instead of fostering a reciprocal conversation, deepens the gulf between them. Another common mistake scientists make is that they fail to address why the story they are telling matters to the nonscientific community, perhaps under the assumption that it is all obvious.
Science is a way to describe the world we live in, and it is scientists’ responsibility to step out of their ivory towers to share with the public how their discoveries elucidate the world. By taking this class, I have learned not only the skills of communication but also the importance of scientists engaging in outreach. The next time my parents ask me about my research, I will be able to explain it with a better storytelling approach without losing the science. I will add, too, that science really isn’t that difficult. The difficulty lies in the words we use.
Lisa Tang is pursuing a Ph.D. in botany and plant science.